Language and Politics

By William O. O'Barr; Jean F. O'Barr | Go to book overview

2
Language Use and Language Policy in Tanzania: An Overview

WILLIAM M. O'BARR

Joseph Greenberg has called Africa one of the most complex linguistic areas of the world, rivaled perhaps only by the situations in aboriginal South America and New Guinea ( Greenberg 1959 : 15). With less than one-tenth of the world's population, Africa accounts for at least one-fifth of the world's languages ( Berry 1970 : 80). Most of them are spoken by relatively small groups of people, and there are only a few African languages spoken over wide areas of the continent.

Colonialism added new dimensions to an already complicated linguistic situation. Partitioned among the various European powers whose imperialistic interests took them to Africa in the last several centuries, the Africa of the 1970s consists of no less than forty-two countries, few of which have official languages of African origin. Most countries face no alternative to relying heavily upon the language of the European power which dominated them during the colonial period -- usually English, French, or Portuguese. There are at least two important reasons which lie behind this situation: (1) the colonial language is often the most widely known in such countries, and (2) having to choose among the myriad African languages spoken within a country would likely cause serious cleavages in the typically precarious political balance. Thus, it is not a happy situation when Africans find themselves forced to rely upon European rather than African languages to direct their internal affairs and to pursue relations with their neighbors.

By African standards, Tanzania's linguistic problems are small ones. Although its African population, numbering over 13 million according to the most recent census, speaks more than one hundred

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